Home to the world-famous Miami Beach (cues LMFAO’s and David Guetta’s hit), Miami is one of the trendiest and most diverse cities in the world. We caught up with Ambassador Kirk Wagar, the United States’ Ambassador to Singapore, at the United States Embassy last December. Ambassador Wagar graduated from law school at the University of Miami and moved to South Beach while it was still an emerging destination, watching it evolve into the world-class destination that it is now.
Knowing the city in and out after having lived in Miami for 25 years, Ambassador Wagar shares the inside scoop on the best restaurants to dine at, the swankiest neighbourhoods to check out, and even the best diving spots near Miami.
Lifestyle Asia (LSA): Which neighbourhoods in Miami do you think are worth checking out?
Ambassador Kirk Wagar (KW): There is something for everyone. The best thing about Miami is that you can wear flip flops and t-shirts and go to one place, or you can dress up and put on your Sunday best and go to another. Coconut Grove has more of a laid back, old Florida feel to it. You won’t feel out of place in a t-shirt and flip flops. There’s a great bar called Sandbar Sports Grill where you can go to watch a football game with your friends.
Art lovers will enjoy the Design District and Wynwood Arts District. The latter is a former warehouse district which has evolved into the arts hub of South Florida. You can find a series of warehouses with high-end graffiti painted over and a lot of galleries. If you’re hungry, there are a lot of food trucks around and good restaurants. Wynwood Kitchen and Grill has a section where you can sit outdoors and admire the painted wall murals. It’s a very funky place. There’s a great bar across the street called Wood Tavern, where you can relax with a pint of beer.
LSA: What are your favourite restaurants in Miami?
KW: A place I really enjoy is Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, which has fantastic soul food. Their fried chicken is phenomenal.
One of Miami’s more famous restaurants is a steak place called Prime 112. A lot of celebrities frequent the eatery, as well as basketball teams after their games. You must be thinking, “oh it’s definitely a tourist trap.” I’m telling you something – it is worth the wait. It’s the best steak I’ve ever had. The service is great, the wine is great, and it’s just a lot of fun.
Those are all South Beach places. My family and I enjoy spending most of our time closer to the neighbourhood, as we live not too far from the Design District. Michael’s Genuine is probably my favourite restaurant. I’m a sucker for devilled eggs, and they make the best devilled eggs I’ve ever had in my life. It’s a famous high-end restaurant, but I like how it feels like a neighbourhood diner.
LSA: Which are the best beaches to go to?
KW: Miami Beach, of course, should be on your list. Nikki Beach is a fantastic beach club there. They actually have a franchise in Koh Samui now. The Sunday brunch at Nikki Beach Miami is my favourite – but part of what makes it special is people watching, as we have such an eclectic group that live in and visit Miami.
South Beach is also nice. What I like to do is go to one of the hotels and rent a lounge chair where I can lay in the sun. Just make sure you have a glass of cold fruity drink with you – it’s important you stay hydrated in the heat. The Setai, where I asked my wife to marry me, is one of my favourites. COMO Hotels, owned by Singaporean Christina Ong, is the nicest spot in South Beach right now.
LSA: Miami is a very vibrant city with something happening all the time, what are some of your favourite festivals or events?
KW: Ultra Miami is the father of all Ultras around the world. At any one point, there’ll be about 200,000 people at the festival just enjoying the music.
In March, there’ll be Jazz in the Gardens. This year there’ll be about 10 acts over two days, including Jill Scott and LL Cool J, among others. The festival will be held in Miami Gardens on the North side of the city – which is close to where I live.
The thing about Art Basel is that there is the main festival on South Beach, but there are also all the parties and affordable art fairs popping up around Miami. You will see Usher hosting a party somewhere in town, and then Roberto Cavalli doing a fashion show in a bar with about 300 people. Nas, a famous rapper, did a show a few years ago and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life.
LSA: What sets Miami apart from other American cities?
KW: Miami has a diversity which makes it remarkably unique. It is similar to Singapore in a way that there is a confluence of cultures – with people from all parts of the globe congregating there to work, live and raise families.
This has resulted in the infusion of the food, fashion, culture and arts. It’s always challenging you to think outside your comfort zone – which to me is exciting. If you’re at a dinner party or restaurant in Miami, chances are you’ll have someone from Brazil, Dubai and Chicago all around the table. It informs you about different cultures, just like it does here in Singapore. If you’re not learning, you’re not listening.
LSA: What can one do if they travel outside of Miami?
Going to the Everglades is something I’d highly recommend. It’s about 45 mins outside of Miami – but you get to experience a whole different world of nature. It’s beautiful, especially on an airboat ride.
Some of the best diving spots in America is just down Florida Keys, about an hour and 15 minutes away from the main areas of Miami. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park has a number of shipwrecks to dive. My wife and I love diving, so it’s something we’re looking forward to getting back into when we move back to Miami.
LSA: When would you recommend travelling to Miami to experience all of these?
KW: The high season is from the end of November to May because the weather is wonderful. It’s not hurricane season at this point – so there’s very little rainfall, no humidity, and it’s just amazing. Especially during summer, where there are many things happening in Miami.
(Main image credit: Ultra Music Festival)